According to the statement above African people should be the most educated people in the world. For over three thousand years African people have been struggling against one invader after the other; for at least two thousand of these years the invader came from Western Asia. This period of oppression abated for a few hundred years and began again with the rise of Rome and Greece and continued in a different form with the rise of Islam and the Arab slave trade. I maintain that if we had learned the right lessons from our invaders and from our oppressors we might have become the world's greatest realists and the world's most astute educators. Unfortunately we have not learned the needed lessons, mainly because we have not invested the time to learn our history. At the time in our lives when we were being prepared against our will to lose our freedom, we were lacking in a proper education, so unsuspecting and politically naive.
Although I am an educator, and have only recently earned a doctorate, most of my education has been informal. The most meaningful survival skills I have learned were learned outside of schools, although the schools, when I could get to them, gave me a formal structure. I think the main thing that schools did for me, in my youth, was not so much to educate me, but to package the loose education I had picked up along the way and give me some indication as to how to use it more effectively. If that is all schools achieve, that's a major achievement, and the schools need not feel negated in their effectiveness. If all schools do is to take what you learn from life and convert it into an instrument for living a more meaningful life in relationship to yourself and other people they have much to congratulate themselves for because we are not nations unto ourselves. Part of what a good education does is to teach us to be better instruments of living together and accepting our interdependenceaccepting how much we need from others and how much other people need from us.
I think this point was rather clear in the affairs of man until the introduction of hard currency and the gradual disappearance of barter as trade. When you had to make someone else's shoes, and he had to furnish bread for someone, and he in turn had to depend upon someone to make the quilt for his bed, this interdependence of people upon other people, based on what each had to offer, made for not only a better life for all, by virtue of this dependence, but it made for a better human existence because man understood the particular contribution of every man and valued it in the overall society. What we lost of the old way of life and what we long for, while not acknowledging that that is what we long for, has made our lives too complicated. We need to make things a little less complicated. With our machines and computers we have made too many day-to-day things complicated and we have over-packaged education to the point where we cannot understand the package.
Education in its formal beginning started long before the first school was built. People become educated by living in and responding to the world around them. In that same way they create their culture. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a culturally deprived human being or an uneducated human being. People in power create rules, standards, and institutions to accommodate their power and what they call their culture and their way of life. This creation is collectively called education.
To the African American, struggle has been the highest form of education, because it is through struggle that he prepares himself to face reality. Lost in his attempt to escape his reality, he goes into fantasy in order to save his sanity. We know what reality is and where reality is. And if we cried all the times we needed to cry, we would be crying all the time. If we looked at our situation, straight in the face, for what it really is, the tragedy would have driven us stark raging mad.
We are America's contradiction. We are a free citizen in a democracy, and yet the sores of racism, inherited from slavery, are still with us and lingering, in the black communities, especially the black urban communities. Black urban communities are the servants' quarters that were created because after the servants had served the master the latter did not want to look at them until he wished to be served again. These communities are old in America. The early freed blacks and escaped slaves lived, in most cases, in the first black urban communities. When servants were educated at all they were educated to serve and not to share power. This is the basic dilemma in black education. Black people were not brought to this country to be given education, citizenship or democracy. They were brought here to serve, to labor and to obey. When the American promise was made originally, it was not meant for us. When the American dream was dreamed originally, it was not dreamed for us. And yet we, the pathological American patriots, have never been able to accept this. And when they said, "Liberty and justice for all," we ran to the place where the "all" was being given out, only to discover that we were not part of that "all." And when they draw the picture of the "all," we discover again to our heartbreak that we are not in the picture.
I think our misunderstanding of America is a misunderstanding of its design. If we could understand its design we would understand its education and its miseducation. To understand its design we must go back to its roots and look at the religion of each one of its founding fathers. Go back and look at the property holdings of each of these founding fathers and you will understand what is so very apparent every day, namely, that this country was designed for free, white, protestant males, preferably those who own property and agree with the prevailing political status quo. Everyone else in America is second to that group, although some people choose to dream otherwise. This country was founded on a particular pecking order with the protestant male property owners at the top of the peeking order. I draw the following example from my sharecropper's background. The rooster in the conglomerate of chickens is the king, and when he gets bored he pecks at one of the hens. In turn the hen, by whatever motivation propels hens, pecks at a smaller hen until it gets down to the smallest chick. The smallest chick does not peck back because he is the end of the pecking order. In the pecking order of power in America, black people stand at the end of the pecking order. What disturbs America now is that there is a revolt at the end of the pecking order. The people in between, especially the white ethnic minorities are in a panic, because if we move from the bottomwho is going to take that last peck without pecking back?
What we have to do in America is to end the whole system of the pecking order and to do this we will have to deal with the white, protestant, maledominated society in order to end this system and bring about a semblance of democracy which could ultimately lead to true democracy. When this happens black people will be able to go where the "all" is given out and get their share of the "all," and they will be able to look at the picture of the "all" and see themselves. Until this happens this country is unworthy of the name Christian and unworthy of the label Democracy.
Another contradiction in America for us is the contradiction in education. We are seen as powerless people and powerful people never educate powerless people in how to take power from them. When education is given to powerless people, the main function of that education is to control them. And this is the tragedy of education for the blacks and for the education of the poor in this country. One can be formally educated and still be a fool where he does not know how to handle himself vis-a-vis the power that controls him.
We need to re-cast education in its entirety. A child going to school needs to be taught how to live in the world that he lives in and how to change that world when it is needed. Somebody needs to take a child's coat or shirt and tell him what process cloth has to go through chemically and scientifically from the field to the shirt, and how one can take a piece of cotton and through different processes turn it into a napkin, a sheet, a towel, and mixed with another kind of fabric into a coat.
We need to sit a child down before his class so that the entire class can see him and be educated by the lesson. We start with his shoes, explainlng that Jan Matzeliger, a black man, invented the lathe that revolutionized shoemaking in America, and that the process of leather tanning was old among us before Europe was born, and that the famous Moroccan leather craved by the kings of Europe did not come from Morocco at all, but came from the same place it still comes from, Northern Nigeria. And that the tanning process in Morocco was in the hands of African craftsmen who made the gloves and the saddles for the horses of the kings. And when we are through with his shoes, we can deal with his cotton socks. He must learn that Eli Whitney did not really invent the cotton gin but tipped the balance laid out by an illiterate slave and developed it into the cotton gin, and then we can deal with cotton itself and the relationship of blacks in America to cotton.
We could ask him how he arrived at school that day. He would tell us that he walked through the streets. We could tell him the contributions of blacks to roadbuilding, long before Europe had its first road. We could mention that the stoplight was a black invention. What we need to do is draw from day-to-day knowledge to teach our children that all history is a current event and that nothing man ever does in the world ever leaves the world, and the first man that sneezed is still influencing the atmosphere, and that all things are here for all time to come, and that if you extract from America the contributions of blacks to this society, the American society would come to a halt.
We could tell this child how the expression, "The real McCoy" developed in our society. The coupling that goes into holding trains together, and the lubrication system that revolutionized American industry was invented by Elijah McCoy, a black man. Elijah McCoy invented so many things and white inventors stole so much from him that when they went to the patent office to register a lubrication system, he was asked, "Did you steal this directly from McCoy, or is this the real McCoy?
By the things that touch the young child's life every day we can try to show him that there moves the genius of his people. The electrical system between the trains was invented by a black man. The very fluorescent light in our room was invented by Louis Latimer who assisted Edison in more ways than Edison cared to admit. Edison's light bulb kept going out until Louis Latimer came up with the filament that made the light burn and bum and bum. This same Louis Latimer drew up the plans for the telephone and he did one other thing that I wish he had not done, he improved the old Gatlin gun which became the forerunner of the rapid-fire machine gun. This same Gatlin gun in the hands of the British, helped to build the British Empire.
In talking about education and struggle, I have been alluding to street education versus formal education and how to communicate with the child whose education is more on the street than in the classroom. My point here is that the institutions of the powerful are limited when it comes to educating powerless people, no matter what the purpose of those institutions happens to be. The one thing powerful people cannot afford to say to powerless people is, "We were wrong." They cannot afford to make this admission without giving the impression that they are unworthy of handling the power that they have. They must always give the illusion of forever being right no matter how disastrous this illusion might turn out to be.
In talking about struggle and formal education we must start with the New England states. At the turn of the century newly freed blacks produced leaders like Frederick Douglass, and strong, black radical ministers who established the first black newspapers, the first labor organizations and the first independent black churches. Now the white missionaries from the North were assisting in black education. Something happened that was very unique in American history and it is unfortunate that this is now forgotten. The first large group of white women who went to school were educated in the New England states. The New England man, a high school graduate if he was that, a good craftsman, a good manager of a factory, but a man not too intellectually endowed, did not know what to do with this college-bred woman. They surely were not going to marry them. In fact, they acted as though they were afraid of them. Large numbers of these women were sent to the south to teach in the newly established schools for blacks. They were called New England schoolmarms, and made a major contribution to black education at a time when we had only a small number of trained black teachers.
Although we have to be thankful for their presence, some of their teaching proved disastrous. Some of these teachers came from New England finishing schools and began to train the black girls accordingly. They began to train black children from farm communities, where they did not have enough forks to go around, how to set a table for a banquet, when they would never have a banquet. If these New England women knew what we did have, like tent meetings, collective eating, mass church picnics in a setting where everything was finger food and no forks were needed, perhaps they could have adopted a more realistic approach to educating the children. They began to teach our girls what gloves to wear with what gown, and our girls often did not own gowns. This was a waste, as all improper education is a waste. One of the notable subjects they taught were Latin and Greek. Their best contribution to our education was the training of black teachers in the structure, design and methodology of teaching the English language. Soon after Reconstruction the southern man must have gotten used to them. He no longer seemed to panic over them, although he remained in awe of them, and eventually began to marry them. Many of these women remained in the South and became Southerners. Some of them returned to New England to live out the last of their days. In the turbulent period of the Reconstruction and its aftermath, when black colleges and new black institutions were established, the schoolmarms were either marrying Southerners or going back to New England, and there was a terrible struggle to keep alive these institutions without their support.
Early in the twentieth century black institutions were still in trouble and vying for a new kind of education and only partly winning the fight. The racially motivated raids in the South and the struggle against these raids caused blacks to migrate from the South in increasing numbers. They came to communities like Harlem, Boston, Philadelphia. and Chicago looking for a new way of life, a new home for themselves and new opportunities for their children. They came looking for something better than what they left behind only to discover that they were to meet new troubles in these places that had to be dealt with in different ways.
We arrived at this present point in our history again facing change. We are increasingly facing a world that will be run, in the main, by science, technology and the ideology that will maintain these forces. Education for the African world of tomorrow must first and foremost take this fact into consideration. When our youth are properly trained to face this reality there should not be a single child, male or female, in the African world, over the age of ten, without a basic knowledge of the computer, some sciences and the accompanying technology. Great emphasis needs to be placed on ending the dependency on others which started during slavery. We must, increasingly depend on ourselves and exchange goods and services between ourselves and others. We should look realistically at the state of the world and build the kind of state that can be the container for our culture, our hopes, our aspirations and the land base of our true sovereignty. All education should be education to assume responsibility
I would like to close with a statement John O. Killens made about Malcolm X. In order to make his statement applicable to all African people I will paraphrase it a little. Mr. Killens said, in effect, We are DEDICATED and COMMITTED African patriots, with DIGNITY as our country, MANHOOD as our government, and FREEDOM as our land.